Weekly briefing

Sudan: war crimes

Genocide is not a word used lightly. Even the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant in 2008 for the Sudanese president, Omar el-Bashir, avoided it. It ruled that el-Bashir should be tried for war crimes, but evidence that he had tried to destroy the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa peoples was lacking. Now, that ruling has been overturned.

Good news? Perhaps. If he is tried, it may bring justice to Sudan, or yet another obstacle to peace. The Arab League rejects the warrant, the African Union accuses the ICC of targeting African countries, and el-Bashir himself appears unmoved.

Bosnia: terrorist fears

On 2 February, in the largest police operation Bosnia has seen since the 1992-95 war, 600 officers descended on the northern village of Gornja Maoca, arresting seven Muslim residents. Small and isolated, the village is home to followers of the strict Wahhabi sect, which some suggest forms the basis for al-Qaeda's ideology. There have been reports that ammunition was also seized.

Fifteen years after the end of the war, Bosnia is still divided along ethnic lines. Many fear that conflict could erupt again. But this raid was a united effort by police from both of the country's semi-autonomous regions - the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat federation - as well as the national security service.

Israel: hostage deals

For a while, it was starting to look as if Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since June 2006, might finally be returned. Mediators seemed close to fixing a deal exchanging several hundred Palestinian prisoners for Hamas's only Israeli captive. But, for now, talks have come to a halt.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has said: "If Hamas wants a deal, it will happen. If it doesn't want a deal, it won't happen." The Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar blames "the appearance of Netanyahu" for stopping talks. Hamas claims that Israel assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas operative, in Dubai on 20 January. If this is true, the prime minister must have authorised the killing.

Shalit's position is even more fragile than before. Once seen as a form of insurance against the killing of Hamas members, his value may now have dropped.

Bollywood: gay kiss

Indian cinema is expecting its first male gay kiss in May, less than a year after the high court in Delhi decriminalised homosexuality with the words: "There is almost unanimous medical and psychiatric opinion that homosexuality is not a disease or a disorder."

Posters promoting Dunno Y . . . Na Jaane Kyun ("Don't Know Why"), which feature two topless men embracing, have appeared in Indian cities in recent days. Will the film be "India's answer to Brokeback Mountain", as promised?

Little is known about the plot so far, except that the hero, a male model who has a relationship with another man, is forced to "compromise" his morals to further his career. So who knows? The film still needs to get past the censors before Bollywood fans can find out.

Germany: coalitions

As her first 100 days at the head of Germany's centre-right coalition drew to a close, Angela Merkel must have thought fondly about her last first 100 days, when her Christian Democrat Party (CDU) was sharing power with the country's Social Democrats.

Elected in September 2009, Merkel's "dream coalition" of the CDU and the Free Democrats has seen her poll ratings drop by 11 points so far this year, as public squabbles over tax cuts undermine her reputation for economic and political dexterity. Ill-founded rumours of her resignation even circulated briefly.

When, 100 days ago, she called the government her "coalition of new possibilities", this is probably not what she had in mind.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.